The Jesus Quest: The Third Search for the Jew of NazarethWritten by Ben Witherington III Reviewed By Gary R. Habermas
The historical Jesus may well be the centrepiece of contemporary religious dialogue. Commentators on both the theological right and left, as well as in between, have honed their professional skills on this increasingly popular topic. As a result, a wide array of interpretations of Jesus has appeared on the modern marketplace.
Ben Witherington is not only a contributor to this discussion through a couple of previous volumes, but has now followed his earlier work with an overview of the current scene. The Jesus_Quest is a serious attempt to catalogue what is now widely known as the third search for the historical Jesus, as indicated in the subtitle of this book.
A preface that provides a very brief survey of the two earlier quests in the nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries is followed by a chapter that discusses Jesus’ Galilean social setting. Witherington’s successive chapters categorize the various volumes of contemporary Jesus studies in terms of the chief motif of each.
Accordingly, Witherington devotes the next two chapters to the Jesus Seminar and the cynic sage hypothesis. Subsequent chapters deal, respectively, with approaches that characterize Jesus as a holy man and teacher, an eschatological prophet, a social reformer, a sage, and as some type of messianic figure. The book closes with a summary, including future prospects for Jesus studies, and an epilogue that considers Raymond Brown’s work on the death of Jesus.
Throughout the volume, Witherington addresses the best-known representatives of these various positions, with his discussion forming a mosaic of scholars that cross the entire theological spectrum. From John Dominic Crossan, Burton Mack and Marcus Borg, to Geza Vermes, E. P. Sanders and John P. Meier, to N. T. Wright and himself, the major third quest works are surveyed.
One indispensable part of the volume, especially in an age that sometimes eschews critical interaction, is that Witherington offers painstaking analyses of each emphasis. One of the strongest critiques is reserved for the Jesus Seminar (Chapter 2), which is critiqued in areas such as the composition of the group and the claims they make for themselves, their criteria of authenticity, their confident use of non-canonical writings, and their general ignoring of the theological (and especially eschatological) nature of Jesus’ teachings. Witherington summarizes: ‘In particular, Jesus is denuded of his historical context, and his sayings are stripped of their literary settings’ (p. 42). Later he amusingly concludes: ‘We simply add that this seminar Jesus will not preach, did not come to save and likely will not last’ (p. 57).
Witherington is also hard on the somewhat related view that Jesus was a cynic philosopher (Chapter 3). He singles out F. Gerald Downing (pp. 62–63) in a chapter that is otherwise chiefly concerned with the writings of John Dominic Crossan, critiquing several themes of the latter. Witherington comments about the cynic sage thesis that it ‘dies with death of too many qualifications’ (p. 72).
While some contemporary approaches to the historical Jesus are rejected, others are thought to be more accurate. Throughout, one of Witherington’s most frequent comments is that many attempts provide partialpictures of Jesus (pp. 115, 142, 151, 160, 180, 186, 232). He concludes that several emphases should be combined for the best representation (p. 185).
The strengths of Witherington’s text are many. It takes pains to explain in detail the smorgasbord of attempts to interpret the historical Jesus, and does so quite readably. It covers a wide variety of both categories and commentators, offering very helpful endnotes that could easily serve as a basis for extended studies.
Themelios readers will probably find few reasons to complain about this text, and most objections would probably seem rather picky. It is true that the first two quests are relegated to less than four pages of the Preface. While it was not the author’s intention to survey these movements in detail, a little more background would doubtless assist those without specific knowledge, especially where such would be very helpful in understanding current trends. For example, a relevant backdrop would enlighten the discussion of subjects like the various criteria commonly used in determining the authentic sayings of Jesus (pp. 46–48).
Still, Witherington’s work is the closest we have to the part played almost 100 years ago by Albert Schweitzer’s classic The Quest of the Historical Jesus. Though without the same amount of detail, this volume is still a worthy guide through the intricate research maze now known as the third quest for the historical Jesus.
Gary R. Habermas
Liberty University, Virginia, USA